Boris Johnson's easing of restrictions in England has the public wondering when can we stop wearing face masks?
They've become a staple of pandemic life, with the British public adhering to face mask rules in shops, supermarkets, hospitality venues and even face masks in cinemas. All in an effort to reduce the transmission of the virus to prevent us from going back into lockdown.
Face masks were made mandatory again in December, under Plan B measures brought in following the spread of the Omicron variant. However, the government have re-evaluated the situation this January and have shared an update on face covering use that comes into effect soon.
When can we stop wearing face masks?
People in England no longer have to wear face masks by law. An end to mandatory face masks came into effect on Thursday 27 January, with the rule being scrapped alongside other plan B restrictions. This means that it's now a matter of personal choice to wear a face covering or not.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed an end to face masks in his House of Commons address on 19 January:
"Having looked at the data carefully the Cabinet concluded that once regulations lapse, the Government will no longer mandate the wearing of face masks," he said.
Though no longer mandatory, Boris added that he "suggests" people to continue to wear face coverings. Especially in "enclosed or crowded spaces". But he was quick to highlight that this was a recommendation and not a rule.
"We will trust the judgment of the British people and no longer criminalise anyone who chooses not to wear one," he said.
Despite the government's new stance on masks, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has shared that they will remain mandatory on Transport for London (TfL) services. This means that those in the capital using the tube, buses, trains and other public transport must wear a mask.
"If we have learnt anything from this pandemic, it is that we must not get complacent and undo all our hard work and sacrifices," he said. "That’s why face coverings will remain a condition of carriage on Transport for London services.
"I’m asking everyone in our capital to do the right thing and continue to wear a face covering when travelling on TfL services to keep us all protected and to prevent further restrictions from being necessary later down the line."
Anyone not wearing a mask on public transport in London could face a £200 fine. Both TfL officers and the police are being deployed to deliver these fines.
Also under the Plan A measures, when the work from home rule will end in the UK has also been announced.
Face masks in Wales
At present, those in Wales still have to wear a face covering by law. This is despite the rule change in England.
First Minister Mark Drakeford has said that a review on Welsh covid restrictions - including face masks - will next take place on 10 February 2022. Despite this, Mr Drakeford shared that he hopes the Welsh people will continue to wear them, whatever the outcome after this date:
"I think there will be lots of people who will choose to go on wearing masks because it gives them confidence that they're keeping themselves safe," he said. "I would certainly consider that myself."
Until this review date, maks remain mandatory:
"Face coverings must be worn in all indoor public places, and public transport, including taxis," reads a statement on the Welsh government website. "You may remove your face covering in the part of the premises for eating or drinking, but only when you are seated to eat or drink. You must replace your face covering when you are no longer seated."
Face masks in Scotland
Scotland will continue to wear face masks in most indoor public spaces. This applies to all individuals aged 12 and over (unless exempt for medical reasons).
The Scottish government website have defined indoor public spaces as:
- Shops, supermarkets and department stores
- Public transport, taxis and hire vehicles
- Bars, cafes, restaurants, nightclubs and takeaways
- hair, beauty and nail salons, tattoo studios
- Churches and other places of worship
- Gyms, leisure centres, swimming pools and indoor fitness studios
- Libraries, museums and galleries
- Casinos, amusement arcades, soft play centres, indoor funfairs, among others
Diners in pubs and restaurants will be able to remove their mask when seated and eating. But will have to put them on again when in communal areas.
Face masks in Northern Ireland
Face masks continue to be mandatory on public transport, in shops and hospitality venues in Northern Ireland. However citizens are not required to wear coverings in gyms and other exercise facilities.
"Generally you must wear a face covering indoors in any premises that are accessible to the public," says the Northern Ireland governement website. "This includes when shopping, in a bank, in a restaurant or cafe unless seated at a table, and in some government buildings. If you are in any doubt, you should wear a face covering."
Those exempt from mandatory face masks in N Ireland include children aged under 13. And anyone who is unable to for medical reasons.
When can we stop wearing masks in schools?
Schoolchildren in secondary schools across England no longer have to wear masks in classrooms or indoor communal areas. The Department of England have confirmed an end to mandatory face coverings, which came into effect on 27 January 2022.
Masks in schools were reintroduced during mid December. When a spike in covid cases due to the spreading of Omicron symptoms led the Prime Minister to introduce Plan B measures.
Face masks in classrooms were the first to be scrapped. With this rule change coming into effect as of 2o January. The Department of Education explained that this move came about "because the national data shows the prevalence of Covid to be on a downward trajectory."
Whilst some have welcomed the move, others have criticised the government's decision:
"No one wants facemasks for any longer than they have to be on," says Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union. "Teachers and pupils much prefer education without facemasks. But I think this is premature — pupils have been back in full-time education for about ten days."
She feels that whilst covid cases are still prevalent, masks should remain in place. And that without them cases could rise again in schools causing "huge disruption".
“This will result in more education disruption which is extremely worrying particularly for pupils taking national exams this year whose education has been so badly disrupted already."
According to the Telegraph, headteachers at over 100 schools in England have written to parents saying that they will keep masks in the classroom until further notice.
An example is Uckfield College in East Sussex, who said they were keeping masks in force "for now" because the "last thing students want at the moment is more staff absence".
The Independent reports that those chosing not to follow the government's new rules will have to gain permission from the Department of Education.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi reportedly told regional health chiefs that schools going against new national guidance on face masks would need to consult him.
Elsewhere in the UK, secondary school students in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will continue to wear face masks in schools. Both in the classroom and communal spaces.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon asked for patience from pupils in Scottish Parliament this week on the matter:
"I know young people want to see the back of them as soon as possible," she said. "But I also know that many young people understand and agree - especially when cases in the younger age group are rising - that face coverings do provide important protection. So this is a matter that requires and will receive careful consideration."
Should I continue to wear a face mask after the rule changes?
Though face masks will cease to be mandatory after 27 January, the government "recommends" they still be worn in enclosed or crowded spaces. This is because mask-wearing is an effective way of preventing the spread of Covid-19.
The face mask or covering works as a barrier between the wearer’s nose and mouth and the space around them. If they have the infection and wear a mask, they can’t expel any droplets of infection from their respiratory system. This means they can’t transmit the virus onto people, surfaces or into the air when breathing or speaking.
Extensive research has confirmed that masks do work to prevent the spreading of the virus. With one 2021 study concluding that widespread use can reduce community transmission.
"The available evidence suggests that near-universal adoption of nonmedical masks when out in public, in combination with complementary public health measures, could successfully reduce to below 1, thereby reducing community spread if such measures are sustained," said the study's researchers.
The World Health Organisation's advice on masks also advocates for continued wearing:
"Masks are a key measure to suppress transmission and save lives,” guidance on the website reads. "Depending on the type, masks can be for either protection of healthy persons or to prevent onward transmission."
Several health charities in the UK have also asked for face mask use to continue to help protect those medically vulnerable.
"The more people who wear masks and keep their distance in crowded places, the more that immunocompromised people will be able to live normal lives," says Helen Rowntree, director of research, services and engagement for Blood Cancer UK. "We welcome the fact in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, people are still being required to wear masks in shops and other indoor public places.”
Though several agencies advocate for mask use to continue, it's ultimately up to the individual if they want to keep wearing them now they're no longer mandatory.
Face masks and face coverings: know the difference
There is a difference between the words ‘face mask’ and ‘face covering’. The latter is the one the government previously mandated as a must-have for the general public. This is because it’s effective at preventing the spread of Covid-19 by the wearer.
It’s simply something that covers your mouth and nose. This could be a scarf, a cloth face mask, a handmade face mask, or a piece of cloth.
A face mask is a surgical-grade mask that’s only required for medical staff.
Where to buy a mask online
You can still buy a mask at many local high-street stores. These include…
- Lloyds Pharmacy: Cloth and disposable face masks/coverings available to buy for adults and children, starting at £4.99.
- Aldi: Packs of three printed cloth face coverings for £3.49.
- Tesco: Pack of 10 disposable facemasks for £5.
- Waitrose: Re-usable masks from designers such as Mulberry. £15 for pack of three (available in store only).
- Next: Packs of three re-useable masks from a variety of brands from £25.
- Halfords: Re-useable face covering, pack of one, for £5.
Face masks are also available to buy online from marketplaces such as Amazon.
Effective masks have at least two layers of fabric. They also completely cover your mouth and nose, have a snug fit against the sides of your face. They also have a nose wire or piece of elastic to prevent hair escaping from the top of the mask.
How to make a face mask
It's possible to make a face mask using simple fabric and everyday materials. To find out how to make your own face mask at home without the need for any sewing, follow our handy online tutorial.
Throughout the pandemic, many people decided to make their own face masks. This is so they are customisable for their own style and comfortable for their own needs.
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Emily Stedman is the former Features Editor for GoodTo covering all things TV, entertainment, royal, lifestyle, health and wellbeing. Boasting an encyclopaedic knowledge on all things TV, celebrity and royals, career highlights include working at HELLO! Magazine and as a royal researcher to Diana biographer Andrew Morton on his book Meghan: A Hollywood Princess. In her spare time, Emily can be found eating her way around London, swimming at her local Lido or curled up on the sofa binging the next best Netflix show.
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